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Pittsburgh-area Democratic delegates want to stick with Biden, dismiss concerns about age

A bag with a picture of Joe Biden wearing sunglasses
Gene J. Puskar
A bag with a picture of Joe Biden on it sits in the stands next to the stage while he spoke at a rally held at the Teamster Local 249 Hall in Pittsburgh Monday, April 29, 2019.

The delegates who will represent the Pittsburgh area at the Democratic National Convention, it seems, are not interested in discussing alternatives to Joe Biden.

After Biden’s widely criticized debate performance late last month, a slew of pundits and even some Congressional leaders have called on him to drop out of the race. If he did, it would fall to the roughly 4,000 delegates who will gather in Chicago for next month’s Democratic National Convention to nominate a replacement.

That’s not a job local delegates say they want. If anything, delegates like Jojo Burgess are upset at party figures for giving weight to concerns about Biden’s age.

“I'm kind of pissed off at some of the Democratic leadership that we have [for] jumping on a pivot point for the other side — that he's too old,” said Burgess, a steelworker and the mayor of Washington, Pa. “We should be rallying around him and making sure that we show a united front because that's the only way we're going to win in November.”

Biden himself has said repeatedly since the debate that he is not dropping out, even daring someone to challenge him at the convention. And Jaime Harrison, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, said the party’s decision has already been made during the primaries.

“Joe Biden will be the Democratic Party’s nominee,” Harrison said in a statement. “Delegates are pledged to reflect voters’ sentiment, and over 99% of delegates are already pledged to Joe Biden headed into our convention.”

WESA spoke with 10 of the delegates who will represent the Pittsburgh area, a group that included elected officials, a retired school counselor, a union worker, an artist, and college students. All of them echoed Harrison’s statement.

Biden may not be out of the woods yet. Some of his TV and radio appearances since the debate have been criticized, and he has promised to give a full press conference on Thursday this week — something he has done less frequently than other recent presidents.

But Sharon Laffey, a school social worker who retired last month, said she believes searching for a new candidate this late would be bad for the party. She hasn’t even begun to think about who could replace Biden if he decided to withdraw.

“I don't have somebody that I think, ‘Oh I hope this person replaces him if he drops out,’” she said. “I feel like that would be such chaos that I'm not even going there.”

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Sticking with Biden

The delegates gave a long list of reasons for why they plan to stick with Biden after the debate debacle. One of the biggest is that Biden should be judged by his record in the White House, rather than by his performance on a single night. Democrats cite a number of policy wins, including investments in infrastructure and green energy as well as his staunch support for organized labor.

Even on Joe Biden's worst day, which I think we saw that Thursday, he's still a million times better than Donald Trump — an insurrectionist, liar, felon, who's running to keep himself out of jail — on his very best day,” said delegate Michelle McFall, the chair of the Westmoreland County Democrats.

McFall said many Westmoreland Democrats are upset at the media for harping on Biden’s age. “Most of the questions I get are about when is the media going to turn this around and start pointing the finger where it should be pointed, which is at Donald Trump,” she said.

Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas, who is also a delegate, said any concerns about Biden’s health should’ve been alleviated by speeches and television appearances since the debate.

“I can only tell you what I have seen since the oft-debated debate performance,” he said. “And that's him giving forceful speeches, focused heavily on policy initiatives and facts of truth, and also the real threat that Donald Trump presents to our democracy.”

Some Democratic delegates have personal experience with Biden, and say he still shows every sign of being up to the job. Burgess said that Biden made a point of speaking with him during a visit in April, and that Biden remembered who Burgess was.

“The man understands what's going on. I mean, who the hell knows who JoJo Burgess is in Washington, Pa. — city of 13,000?” Burgess said.

Dwan Walker, the mayor of Aliquippa and another delegate, has also had firsthand experience with Biden.

“You can see that he’s genuine about his interactions with people, like my dad,” Walker said. “You shake a man's hand, you can really tell what they’re worth.”

None of the delegates said they have concerns about Biden’s age or health — although several mentioned hearing from other Democrats or family members who do. Kaylee Warner, a college student from Fox Chapel, said that voters aren’t just choosing Biden but an entire administration — and the people he appoints outside it.

“We're voting for potentially the future of our Supreme Court, if not all the other courts and all the people that are going to be surrounding him,” Warner said. “And I have no doubt in my mind that he knows how to pick the right people, because I've seen him do it.

But if Biden did drop out?

Most delegates said they support Joe Biden too much — or they’re too unsure about the alternative — to have considered other options.

But a couple said Vice President Kamala Harris would be the obvious choice to replace Biden if need be, since voters have already picked her to back him up. She's also a woman of color — a key Democratic constituency.

Morgan Overton, an artist and vice-chair of Allegheny County’s Democratic Committee said Harris as “the natural choice, as “the second in command, and she's been a champion on so many issues, including reproductive choice.”

But Overton stressed she was with Biden "until he says, 'You know what, I'm going to get my bus.' I'm trying to stay still and steady, and not allow the media frenzy to dictate how I’m going to move.’ … What I want people to do is think of the bigger picture and keep our eye on the prize. It's very easy to take that 90 minutes and have that wipe out what's been going on.”

Walker said that, if the situation arose, he thinks the party should limit the number of candidates. “We don't need a long, drawn-out process,” he said. “Look at the body of work of the people that they’re considering and then bring that before the national arena … and have a discussion.”

Warner said she would listen to the Allegheny County residents who elected her, as well as older, more experienced delegates.

Some delegates said they didn’t expect Gov. Josh Shapiro to be a contender, even though his name has been circulated in national media. James DePoe, a labor organizer for the AFL-CIO, said he believed Shapiro had put himself out of consideration in January 2023, when KDKA-TV asked if he would run for president this year and he replied “The answer is no.”

Manuel Bonder, a spokesperson for Shapiro, pointed to that statement and said, “This type of baseless speculation is just a distraction — and it is unhelpful to accomplishing what we need to do this November: defeat Donald Trump at the ballot box.”

Many delegates agreed. State Rep. Jessica Benham said that if Democrats worried about Biden’s ability to beat Trump, they should do whatever they can to help.

"I don't think anyone is concerned about whether he can govern effectively. We've seen his administration in action and deliver for the nation,” she said. But when it came to the campaign, “We’re allowed to have concerns about any candidate regardless of who they are. … And if people are concerned, they should get involved."

Westmoreland County party chair McFall said she would follow Biden's lead in any case. “If Joe Biden makes a decision and signals in a different direction, I'm not going to be listening to a chorus of voices, I'll be taking his direction,” she said. “I think he's earned that.”

McFall said she thought the crisis could end up being helpful for Democrats. “Everyone got rattled in the moment” after the debate, she said. “It was a great wake-up call.

“It's strengthened us,” she added. “I think it's strengthened Joe Biden, not just as a human being, but as a candidate.

Chris Potter contributed reporting to this story.

Corrected: July 10, 2024 at 7:59 AM EDT
The spelling of Michelle McFall's name was corrected.
Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.